Rockford sees public pensions eat nearly 40% of municipal property taxes

Adam Schuster

Senior Director of Budget and Tax Research

Adam Schuster
September 16, 2021

Rockford sees public pensions eat nearly 40% of municipal property taxes

Public pensions are growing and taking a greater share of property taxes, hurting public services. Still, the average Rockford household owes over $35,000 in state and local pension debt.

Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation pension debt has become a well-known problem. Over $144 billion in pension debt for the five statewide retirement systems breaks down to nearly $30,000 in debt for each household, which must be paid with further tax hikes or further cuts to core government services.

Less well known is the nearly $75 billion of pension debt held by local governments in Illinois, which is the primary reason for Illinois’ second-highest in the nation property taxes. Combined with the state’s pension debt, politicians who mismanaged the pension system dug a $219 billion hole.

In Rockford, the average household owes $35,175 in state and local pension debt, with roughly $5,400 of that debt stemming from local systems for police, firefighters and municipal workers. Pension debt per household in Rockford equals nearly 80% of the $44,252 median annual income for a Rockford household.

The city of Rockford has more than $320 million in local pension debt, according to available data for fiscal year 2019. That debt includes $168.3 million for fire pensions, $142.8 million for police pensions and $9.7 million for municipal workers.

Pension experts consider a funding ratio of less than 60% to be “deeply troubled.” A 40% funding ratio may be a “point of no return,” meaning an inability to make required contributions or maintain adequate funding levels – without painful cuts or serious structural reforms. The Rockford firefighters fund is only 46% funded, while the police pension fund has only 52 cents saved for each $1 in future promises.

Pension contributions cost Rockford nearly $22.7 million in fiscal year 2019, nearly 40% of the $59 million in total property taxes collected.

The local pension crisis drives property tax hikes as mayors and other local leaders struggle to keep up with the growing financial burden. Local leaders have been saddled with pension systems created by state law and have virtually no options to reduce costs or improve sustainability on their own. Property taxes equal roughly $2,680 on a Rockford home valued around the area average $91,600, according to information from the county assessor. That’s 2.9% of the home’s value going to property taxes each year.

For Rockford to avoid running out of money in five years, the city would have to eliminate 40 sworn police officers, close an entire fire station, freeze all city employee wages to 2019 rates, and even sell its water system, consultants from National Resource Network in 2018 advised if the city were to continue absorbing rising pension costs. These were just a few of the cuts needed to avoid fiscal disaster.

In many cities such as Rockford, taxpayers are being asked to pay more to get less. Rising annual pension costs are crowding out local government spending on services that residents want and need.

In recent years, Illinois cities have already been forced to either lay off current workers, raise taxes or both to keep up with the cost of these pension systems. For example:

  • Jerome, Geneseo, and Norridge raised property taxes to pay for pension costs in 2018.
  • The south Chicago suburb of Harvey in 2018 laid off one-quarter of its police officers, more than half of its other police department personnel and 40% of its firefighters after the state intercepted money bound for the city under a pension law intended to force cities to make required pension contributions.
  • In 2019, the pension intercept law was also triggered in North Chicago and East St. Louis. The resulting increase in pension costs for the cities’ budgets resulted in $1.3 million of cuts in North Chicago, including layoffs for three firefighters, and nine firefighter layoffs in East St. Louis.
  • Peoria, which in 2018 eliminated 38 first responder jobs and 27 municipal jobs, has already been forced to cut an additional 45 jobs in 2020 after COVID-19 exacerbated the city’s pension-driven budget woes.

The combination of higher taxes and worsening services is a major reason Illinoisans have increasingly fled to other states. The 2020 Census marked the first time in 200 years that Illinois lost population between decennial Census counts, which was driven by migration of Illinois residents to other states.

Illinois’ state and local pension crisis is the most severe public policy challenge facing the state. It contributes to nearly every other fiscal and economic problem, including high property taxes, cuts to government services, economic stagnation and the Illinois exodus.

The only viable solution to Illinois’ pension crisis starts with a constitutional amendment to allow for reductions in future benefit growth for current workers and retirees. The current pension clause, which prevents changes not only to earned benefits but also the future growth rate of benefits for work not yet performed, is a pair of fiscal handcuffs on mayors left with few options besides hiking taxes and cutting services.

A “hold harmless” pension reform plan developed by the Illinois Policy Institute for the state’s systems can save roughly $2.4 billion for the state budget the first year and more than $50 billion through 2045. The plan would also totally eliminate the state’s pension debt during that time, rather than the 90% reduction state leaders hope for. It accomplishes all of that while preserving every dollar of pension benefits promised to public workers for work already performed.

Similar reforms to local pension systems could offer significant property tax relief to overburdened homeowners, free up resources for spending on current services, or finance a combination of the two. In Rockford, such relief is sorely needed.

True pension reform, starting with a constitutional amendment, is the only way to stop the Illinois exodus by finally giving taxpayers value for their money.

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